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Windows Phone, a year on

Windows Phone is in limbo. The company acknowledged that it has performed below expectations. During the last quarter for which we have data (ending June) I have an estimate that Windows Phone sold only 1.4 million units (Gartner’s sell-through analysis suggests 1.7 million). That gives Microsoft a 1.3% share of units sold (Gartner 1.6%), a new low.

At the same time, comScore data shows that user erosion in the US and EU5 has slowed and is holding at about 2.2% of all users.

For its part Microsoft has lain low during the last few months. It released version 7.5 (Mango) last month to manufacturers.  It has a number of Windows Phone SKUs in the market or recently announced (27 with version 7 and eleven with version 7.5)

It also sued Android vendors successfully and obtained royalties from the largest Android licensees Samsung and HTC. Patent royalties from Android are probably going to be higher than license revenues from Windows Phone for quite some time.

Something is missing from this analysis. Clearly Microsoft has a plan. It’s always had a plan. The plan is not easily perceived because the market Microsoft addresses itself to is not directly to the consumer–we cannot read the message. Microsoft needs to work through partners. Device vendors and operators mainly. In order to persuade them Microsoft deploys its check book.

Put another way, the plan is that Microsoft intends to buy market share. Before we get into exactly how, we need to understand the most important but least discussed contributor to device sales: channel incentives.

Before a phone is sold it needs to get through a mine field of obstacles: it needs to appeal to operator or distributor priorities; it needs to fill a slot in a portfolio of products for the manufacturer and the channel; it needs to acquire shelf space; it needs to appeal to some end users and, unless it has a blindingly strong brand, it needs to offer incentives to the retailer.

This last piece of the puzzle is something of a mystery. Although not a universal practice, in many cases retail staff are paid commissions directly or indirectly by the device vendor. This relationship between the retailer and the vendor is not transparent. A buyer typically does not know what incentives are attached to a given device. Stories of salespeople steering people to and away from certain devices abound.

Microsoft acknowledges this:

Both Samsung and HTC Corp. have committed to increasing marketing budgets for the phones, said Andy Lees, president of Microsoft’s mobile unit, in an interview. While manufacturers will determine how the money is spent, some of it will probably go toward spurring retail staff to tout Windows Phone models, he said.

Microsoft Phones to Get More Marketing, Sales Incentives – Bloomberg.

In another interview:

Q: It seems like one of the challenges is getting the salesperson in the store to push the phone.

A: Absolutely. I think that’s a number of things:

One — they get influenced by how good the product is. The reviewers have influence with that and also their own experience.

The second thing is the alignment with the operator. I think we’re already pretty aligned and over the life of this release, we’ll get even more aligned.

Much more hereBusiness & Technology | Windows Phone chief Andy Lees sees time ripe for Mango | Seattle Times Newspaper.

What’s more, Microsoft and Nokia have a deal whereby at least one billion dollars from Microsoft are earmarked for the promotion of Nokia Windows Phones.

Even prior to the launch of the Nokia relationship, with the original Windows Phone launch exactly a year ago, Microsoft made clear that it had a budget for promoting Windows Phones ($400 million in fact). In the event, the money seems to not have been spent, or spent sparingly because LG made public its disappointment. The coded language can be interpreted as a snub to Microsoft for withholding promised funds.

Perhaps the funding was withdrawn because by the time the launch was scheduled, the Nokia deal was being negotiated. Perhaps Microsoft felt it better to put more effort behind the re-launch of the platform with Nokia on board. A re-launch which has yet to happen but seems to have already had $127 million allocated to it by Nokia alone.

Microsoft is proud of what it has accomplished with Windows Phone because they were able to update the OS in 11 months and took only about two years to completely rebuild Windows Mobile into Windows Phone.

But the dependence on a complex value network means that products do not reach users quickly enough and when they do the marketing message is weak, even when backed by large budgets. The real problem with Microsoft’s approach is that it’s neither viral like Android (because it has a price and a contract associated with it) nor is it focused and agile like Apple’s. It seems to suffer from the worst aspects of modularity (market lag) without benefiting from the control over the ecosystem and end user experience that differentiates it.

Microsoft will muddle through but the 20% share that it says is “conservative” seems anything but.